The vote to decide Virginia's next governor takes place today. The Democrat, Terry McAuliff, is pitted against Republican and Tea Party favorite, Ken Cuccinelli. McAuliff has never held elective office, but he has served as Hilary Clinton's campaign chair, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and is a prolific fundraiser. His opponent, Cuccinelli, has over the course of his political career taken on conservative causes. As Virginia's Attorney General he initiated a court challenge to Obamacare and moved against University of Virginia climate change researchers.
One would like to think that the contest will be decided by rational, thinking voters on the issues, but a study by Yale professor Daniel M. Kahan casts some doubts on that wishful thinking.
Research by Kahan shows that rational thinking is no panacea to resolving political discourse. Kahan's work shows higher education and application of higher numeracy skills lead to a more correct interpretation of scientific data when the data deal with non political or non ideological questions. For example, in a study of whether a skin cream treatment is effective against a rash, those with higher education and numeracy skills made the correct interpretation. But when scientific data are applied to politically sensitive questions such as whether gun control leads to more or less crime, or whether climate change is for real or not, higher education and higher numeracy skills more often than not lead to an ability to interpret the data in ways that solidify group identity, whether that identity be liberal or conservative on the political spectrum, rather than to a correct interpretation of the data.
This latter tendency is not irrational, according to Kahan, who writes in a conclusion of one of his studies,
"The reason that citizens remain divided over risks in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence, this account suggest, is not that that they are insufficiently rational; it is that the that they are too rational in extracting from information on these issues the evidence that matters most for them in their everyday lives. In an environment in which positions on particular policy-relevant facts become widely understood as symbols of individuals’ membership in and loyalty to opposing cultural groups, it will promote people’s individual interests to attend to evidence about those facts in a manner that reliably conforms their beliefs to the ones that predominate in the groups they are members of. Indeed, the tendency to process information in this fashion will be strongest among individuals who display the reasoning capacities most strongly associated with science comprehension."
Kahan's work has nothing to do with whether Republicans, Conservatives and "Tea Partiers," or Democrats, Liberals and Leftists - are more scientifically literate. It is about how those who are more scientifically literate are more able to correctly interpret scientific evidence about a skin rash study but at the same time more likely to incorrectly interpret scientific evidence about politically sensitive issues in a way that supports the beliefs of the group with whom they identify most closely, whether they be Conservatives or Liberals.
In Kahan's own words when commenting in a blog on his work, he says, "I think that existing studies, including ours, establish very, very convincingly that there is a tendency toward biased assessments of empirical evidence across the ideological spectrum (or cultural spectra), and that that problem is more than big enough to be a concern for everyone."
Kahan's work itself has been cited incorrectly as implying that one side or the other of the ideological divide has a greater or lesser degree of "scientific comprehension," though Kahan reports that his sample data did exhibit a "pitiable small" negative association between identifying as Republican and his scale of scientific comprehension, and an equally small positive correlation between science comprehension and identifying with the Tea Party.
You can download a free pdf file of Professor Kahan's study here, but be forewarned, it is loaded with jargon.
Oh, in that Virginia gubernatorial race, polls show that Democrat McAuliff will win. But whether the polls turn out to be right, Kahan's work suggests that it may not be entirely the result of rational interpretation of the evidence supporting any one position or the other.